Wasden: Swansea Still Thwarting Quest for Info

September 1, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSwansea officials are refusing to budge on the $10,000 price tag they’ve asked an area businesswoman to pay before they’ll turn over basic information about the town despite increased media scrutiny.

Several media outlets have taken notice in the nine days since The Nerve broke the story about how officials responded to Alberta Wasden’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking basic town information – including financial statements, meeting minutes and ordinances – with a bill for $9,996.25.

WIS-TV ran a segment Monday on Wasden’s quest to learn how the town of approximately 500 has racked up more than $470,000 in debt. The Orangeburg Times and Democrat last week printed an editorial that said the situation in Swansea “is another example of citizens meeting roadblocks in seeking access to information about government.”

In addition, the story has received attention on both libertarian- and journalism-focused blogs, with one commenting, “File this one under continued abuse of the copying and retrieval cost provisions of many state FOI acts.”

Yet, despite the attention, Swansea officials are still singing the same tune.

“Nothing’s changed,” Wasden said. “They still want $10,000 and I think they’re asking for that amount of money because they’re trying to scare me off. I think they don’t have some of what I’m asking for, so they’re trying to scare me off.”

While South Carolina law allows a public body to collect fees for searching for and making copies of records, it also states that fees must be furnished at the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records.

In addition, state law says that information may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when a public body determines it is in the public interest because the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.

Wasden believes that charging $21.85 an hour for researching and copying information, as Swansea has proposed, violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Wasden, a Swansea accountant and citizen reporter for The Nerve, filed an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request in late July for the information, also seeking data on business licenses and paperwork related to grants or federal funding to Swansea.

Her request dates back as far as 2004 for some material, and to 2008 for other information.

Wasden said her request was prompted by concerns over the handling of town finances and questions about how the town was being operated.

She believes someone in the town needs to be held accountable for the fact that because Swansea officials failed to forward the state its share of fines imposed in municipal court – mainly for traffic violations – from 2004-07, the community now owes $473,251.

Instead, that money paid salaries of the 10-member town staff and unspecified bills.

Mayor Ray Spires and other town leaders have blamed the debt on bad advice, but an audit of town finances showed that Spires spent the money without authorization from the Town Council.

“I want to know who’s accountable for what happened to that money,” Wasden said.

Wasden said she was staggered when she received a response from the town of Swansea dated Aug. 9 and signed by Spires stating, “The total estimated cost to the town to comply with your FOIA request is approximately $9,996.25.”

In addition, Swansea officials requested that Wasden provide a deposit of $4,916.25 before they would begin compiling the information requested.

“I figured this was information they should be able to produce easily at a minimal cost,” she said. “I didn’t ask for anything that isn’t supposed to be public record.”

Spires didn’t respond to interview requests from The Nerve on Tuesday, but told WIS the town could have asked Wasden for even more money to fulfill her request.

“We read it as a very time-consuming process, something out of the ordinary from what most people would ask for,” he told the station.

Spires did tell The Nerve last month that Wasden’s request would require searching “… a lot of boxes of stuff. I’m not sure she really knows what she wants.”

Wasden said she offered to come in and copy the information herself (using her own equipment), but Swansea officials said that won’t affect the bottom line. That’s because there’d still have to be someone from the town on hand “to pull stuff and mark out Social Security numbers and other sensitive information,” Spires said.

A breakdown of anticipated costs shows town officials are asking Wasden to pay an estimated $6,622 alone for the town’s financial statements and meeting minutes for the period 2005-2010. They’re estimating that they will need to copy approximately 40,000 pages, and that it will take approximately 120 hours to retrieve and copy the documents.

Swansea is asking for $937 from Wasden for copying and providing the town’s codes and ordinances.

Wasden has said she wants to know why a town the size of Swansea has 5,000 pages of ordinances, and why there have been so many revisions and additions.

Wasden has also requested copies of business licenses issued by the town between March 1, 2008, and July 25, 2010. Officials responded that it would cost about $190 for the approximately 800 pages of information on business licenses.

Given that Swansea doesn’t even have 800 residents, Wasden questions why there would be 800 pages of business licenses compiled during the past two-plus years.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kevin@thenerve.org.